Ajax and Juve set to renew rivalry

BERNE - Ajax Amsterdam and Juventus, who have twice met in the European Cup final, clash again this week but this time in the much less glamorous surroundings of the Europa League round of 32.

Juventus visit the Amsterdam Arena on Thursday having been dispatched to Europe's secondary competition after losing 4-1 at home to Bayern Munich in their final Champions League group game when they only needed a draw to qualify.

Ajax, no longer among the big guns of European football, comfortably qualified by finishing second in Europa League Group A.

The Amsterdam team beat Juventus 1-0 in the 1973 European Cup final in Belgrade but the Italians gained revenge 23 years later in Rome, winning 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

Juventus are one of eight teams who are entering the fray after finishing third in their Champions League group in December and for whom the Europa League is at best a consolation and at worst an inconvenience which clutters up the fixture list.

Other Champions League drop-outs include five-times European champions Liverpool and Romania's Unirea Urziceni, who meet at Anfield on Thursday, and Bundesliga champions VfL Wolfsburg who travel to Spain to face Villarreal.

The Europa League is the rebranded version of the old UEFA Cup, European football's governing body having hoped a new look and a new name would drum up interest in a tournament which comes a poor second to the Champions League in prestige.

RESERVE TEAMS

Many critics, however, feel one of the biggest dents to its credibility is that eight teams who have effectively failed in the premier tournament parachute into the Europa League.

Although the presence of big clubs is, on the surface, a boost it could have the opposite effect if they decide to field reserve teams and save their best for domestic leagues.

Clubs such as Liverpool and Juventus would almost certainly prefer to do well at home and qualify for next season's Champions League than win the Europa trophy.

In other matches English Premier League Everton, who lost 5-0 and 2-0 to Benfica in the group stage, face another Portuguese side in Sporting Lisbon.

Everton host the first leg which has been brought forward to Tuesday.

"Benfica have a really good team who could easily play in the Champions League but I think we learned how to go about it against a Latin team," said Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar.

"It helps us that we got one of the teams that play in their league."

Austria's Salzburg, the only team who came through the group stage with a 100 percent record, travel to Belgium on Thursday to face a Standard Liege side who changed coach last week.

Laszlo Boloni quit last Wednesday and was replaced with Dominique D'Onofrio who has been put in charge until the end of the season.

The tournament will continue to feature two extra linesmen, one behind each goal, in an experiment which will later be evaluated by football's governing body FIFA.


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